Meetings: disciplining the mind and the body

While re-reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s (1992) Managing with Power, I was struck by Pfeffer’s linking of power to brute physical endurance. By endurance, Pfeffer doesn’t mean the ability to benchpress more than one’s weight, but the ability to not step out from a meeting for a bathroom break* or the ability to work long hours on limited sleep. Although some strategic readers might opt to strengthen their bladders or invest in astronaut diapers to avoid missing an important part of a meeting, perhaps we should ask a deeper question about whether such stamina is warranted.

When I first started observing Burning Man senior staff meetings, decision making consisted of arduous, drawn-out affairs. One 45 minute-long discussion about a proposed $500 budget item for camels almost sent me, the observer, into a comatose state beneath the conference table. Because the senior staff used decision making by consensus in which all participants were supposed to agree on matters (as opposed to voting), discussion could generate wild swings. Some participants felt blind-sided by the topics brought up for discussion. Other participants experienced the gamut of undesirable outcomes: upsetting conflicts, hurt feelings, agreement out of sheer exhaustion, and a dread of future meetings. Over time, organizers learned to initiate informal discussions ahead of meetings so that people were prepared for decision making. Thus, organizers introduced enough structure to encourage decision making moments, rather than subjecting everyone to physical endurance trials.

* Among academics, those who leave risk getting assigned to committee work.

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